Netflix review: Bo Burnham: Make Happy and what.
Ivan Radford | On 26, May 2021
“I don’t want you leaving this show thinking, ‘My hands hurt from clapping.’ I want you leaving the show, thinking, ‘Oh, alright…'” That’s the sound of Bo Burnham at his best in his stand-up special what., a one-hour masterclass in setting audience expectations – and then upending them at every opportunity. Three years later, he went further in another Netflix special, Make Happy, and that repeated, playful exploration of comedy and performance makes him a hilariously unpredictable comedy performer.
Burnham broke out on YouTube with comedy songs, before going on to record specials and albums. That knack for musical amusement is central to his stagecraft, something that’s evident in the way that audiences cheer when he moves towards the piano. His witty, intricate lyrics are matched by his satirical tone and self-deprecating irony, making him something of America’s answer to Tim Minchin. Knocking a bottle of water over accidentally purpose is all he needs to segue into a musical number, while he doesn’t waste the opportunity to think big with a song written from God’s perspective or turn introspective with a song written about the left and right sides of his brain struggling to get along.
But where his earlier work is perhaps represented by the raunchier jokes that pop up now and then – a song about singing with an audience member’s mum is underwhelming compared to the standard of the rest of the work – they’re offset by his growing ambition, artistically and comedically. A moment of elongated eye contact with an audience member is laugh-out-loud funny, and epitomises the way Burnham can control the mood of a room with precision. Throughout he focuses on him being a character, on his persona being perceived as gay by others and the fact that everything he’s doing is planned and not improvised, guiding audiences in one direction while warning them not to trust him.
What begins in What. as a meditation on identity and being true to oneself – culminating in the bravura We Think We Know You – emerges in Make Happy as an examination of whether there’s any point being a comedian in the modern world at all. That means tongue-in-cheek laments about how hard it is to be a straight white male, and a Kanye West-inspired rant about the size of Pringle cans, but it also means an increasingly theatrical presentation, as Burnham explicitly sets up layers of artifice through the use of pre-recorded audio and choreographed sound and light effects. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that he left behind his prickly persona and stand-up comedy to focus on bigger, collaborative projects – his directorial debut, Eighth Grade, won an Independent Spirit Award in 2018, and he co-starred in Promising Young Woman. But with Netflix announcing his fourth comedy special, Inside, will premiere on 30th May, the idea of him tackling a year of living through the coronavirus pandemic with his signature blend of awkward anxiety, smart wordplay and musical stings is just the latest unexpected beat in a career built on entertaining surprises.
What. and Make Happy are available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.